Holman prison

Holman Correctional Facility just north of Atmore.

How a state treats the less fortunate, the infirm, the young and the imprisoned says a great deal about its value of human life.

Alabama hasn’t expanded Medicaid -- a deplorable missed opportunity rooted in a heartless political stance -- despite the federal government’s offer to pay nearly all of the added costs for several years.

Alabama hasn’t committed to the fiscal and administrative changes required to propel its public schools into the nation’s upper tier.

And the latest example: Alabama has allowed its overcrowded and underfunded prison system to become a killing field on par with Third World countries.

That isn’t hyperbole.

It’s truth.

Last Friday, 29-year-old Vaquerro Kinjuan Armstrong, an inmate at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, was murdered by an inmate. Two weeks before, inmate James Lewis Kennedy was murdered by an inmate at Elmore Correctional Facility. Those killings raise the homicide total at Alabama’s prisons to 19 in the last two years, including nine this year, and 35 at Alabama Department of Corrections facilities in the past five years. The St. Clair facility has been the site of nine homicides. Twenty-one have happened at medium-security facilities. The location doesn’t seem to matter.

For perspective, let’s turn to the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, a renowned advocate for equality in the criminal-justice system:

“Alabama's rate of over 34 homicides per 100,000 people incarcerated is more than 600 percent greater than the national average from 2001 to 2014 … (Last) week's violence at Holman along with violent incidents at Elmore and St.Clair have created an unprecedented crisis in Alabama prisons with regard to the safety of prisoners and staff.”

This is our fault -- the fault of our politicians, the fault of our justice system, the fault of our voters who have not used the ballot to force sweeping reforms in this inhumane situation.

Understand that we are not naive about prisons. They are compounds of steep personal restrictions, a place to house the convicted, a way to protect the populace from those who rob, steal, rape and kill. They are not, and should not be, compounds of comfort.

But the imprisoned are humans, and they deserve basic protections given to all Alabamians. On this, our prison system is failing.

The incremental improvements in the size of Alabama’s inmate population have failed to prevent this appalling number of homicides.

The Legislature’s efforts to ward off federal intervention in our prisons have failed to radically change the reality inside the Department of Corrections.

And Alabamians -- including us -- have failed to fully understand how profound this problem is.

No state has a prison system more lethal than Alabama’s, where, the EJI writes, “thousands of prisoners (are) vulnerable to abuse, assaults and uncontrolled violence.” Our prisons exist for a reason. They shouldn’t be Marriotts for the convicted. But they shouldn’t be killing fields, either. And that’s on us.

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